Poor Communicators

Is miscommunication a constant problem at your workplace? In this episode of HBR’s advice podcast, Dear HBR:, cohosts Alison Beard and Dan McGinn answer your questions with the help of Holly Weeks, a lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the author of Failure to Communicate. They talk through what to do when your coworker won’t stop talking, your boss overcommunicates with everyone on a project, or a leader keeps changing what you’re supposed to do.

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Listen to more episodes and find out how to subscribe on the Dear HBR: page. Send in your questions about workplace dilemmas by emailing Dan and Alison at dearhbr@hbr.org.

From Alison and Dan’s reading list for this episode:

Book: Failure to Communicate by Holly Weeks — “It helps to think of a tough conversation as a landscape through which we and our counterpart move. If we

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16-49-81

What do these numbers mean to you?

At a recent offsite, during our conversation about evolving our communication patterns (which I refer to, in my head, as “the Matrix”), Ryan said “16-49-81.” Everyone stared at him and I responded “4-squared, 7-squared, 9-squared.” Then, everyone nodded their heads but were probably thinking “these guys are numerology goofballs.”

But then Ryan said, “Metcalfe’s Law” and everyone immediately understood.

When we were just four partners, our communication matrix was 16. We added three new partners and it became 49. We recently added a General Counsel to our team and consciously included our CFO in the communication matrix, so now it’s 81.

81 is a lot different than 16. Our communication matrix is highly optimized (and something we are extremely focused on as a key attribute of what we do), but Ryan was pointing out that we needed to

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How to Stop Saying “Um,” “Ah,” and “You Know”

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Um.

Ah.

So.

You Know.

Like.

Right?

Well.

When we find ourselves rattled while speaking — whether we’re nervous, distracted, or at a loss for what comes next — it’s easy to lean on filler words. These may give us a moment to collect our thoughts before we press on, and in some cases, they may be useful indicators that the audience should pay special attention to what comes next. But when we start to overuse them, they become crutches — academics call them disfluencies — that diminish our credibility and distract from our message.

Using research that incorporates behavioral science, AI, and data, the people science firm I run, Quantified Communications, determined that the optimum frequency is about one filler per minute, but the average speaker uses five fillers per minute — or, one every twelve seconds.

So let’s take a look at what the

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What to Do When Each Department Uses Different Words to Describe the Same Thing

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We’ve all experienced some version of this problem: Ask “how many customers do we have?” and the marketing team provides one answer, sales a second, and accounting a third. Each department trusts its own system, but when the task at hand requires that data be shared across silos, the company’s various systems simply do not talk to one and other.

The problem arises because different systems employ different definitions of key terms. Thus, the term “customer” can mean a potential buyer to the marketing department, the person who signed the purchase order to sales, and the legal entity that it bills to accounting. Then people misunderstand the data and make mistakes. These issues grow more important as companies try to pull more and more disparate data together — to develop predictive models using machine learning, for example.

Specialized vocabularies develop in the business world every day to

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How to Pump Yourself Up Before a Presentation (or Calm Yourself Down)

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Public speaking affects people in different ways. Some people get jittery and anxious before they talk; they need to spend time calming themselves down before they go onstage.

Other people want to make sure they have extra energy when they’re in front of an audience. These people need to spend time amping themselves up before a talk — doing whatever helps them feel invigorated.

My pre-talk ritual has always been to be still; I would consider this a spiritual ritual. I’ll typically find a dark spot backstage to center myself, exhale calmly, and create quiet space in my head. Meanwhile, I interviewed over 40 professional speakers some of who have a more amp-it-up ritual, like doing power poses or rocking out to heavy metal bands.

Out of curiosity, I decided to try out some of these different, energizing pre-talk rituals before my last big keynote. I

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The 2 Types of Respect Leaders Must Show

Kristie Rogers, an assistant professor of management at Marquette University, has identified a free and abundant resource most leaders aren’t giving employees enough of: respect. She explains the two types of workplace respect, how to communicate them, and what happens when you don’t foster both. Rogers is the author of the article “Do Your Employees Feel Respected?” in the July–August 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review.

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7 Skills That Aren’t About to Be Automated

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Today’s young professionals grew up in an age of mind-boggling technological change, seeing the growth of the internet, the invention of the smartphone, and the development of machine-learning systems. These advances all point toward the total automation of our lives, including the way we work and do business. It’s no wonder, then, that young people are anxious about their ability to compete in the job market. As executives who have spent our lives assessing and implementing digital technology in every type of organization, we often get asked by them: “What should I learn today so that I’ll have a job in the future?” In what follows we’ll share seven skills that can not only make you unable to be automated, but will make you employable no matter what the future holds. 

Communication. In a world where U.S. adults’ total media usage is nearly 12

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If You Say Something Is “Likely,” How Likely Do People Think It Is?

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People use imprecise words to describe the chance of events all the time — “It’s likely to rain,” or “There’s a real possibility they’ll launch before us,” or “It’s doubtful the nurses will strike.” Not only are such probabilistic terms subjective, but they also can have widely different interpretations. One person’s “pretty likely” is another’s “far from certain.” Our research shows just how broad these gaps in understanding can be and the types of problems that can flow from these differences in interpretation.

In a famous example (at least, it’s famous if you’re into this kind of thing), in March 1951, the CIA’s Office of National Estimates published a document suggesting that a Soviet attack on Yugoslavia within the year was a “serious possibility.” Sherman Kent, a professor of history at Yale who was called to Washington, D.C. to co-run the Office of

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Performance Reviews

Do performance reviews fill you with anxiety? In this episode of HBR’s advice podcast, Dear HBR:, cohosts Alison Beard and Dan McGinn answer your questions with the help of Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and host of the podcast WorkLife. They talk through how to handle performance reviews that have mixed messages, extreme criticism, or not enough helpful feedback.

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Listen to more episodes and find out how to subscribe on the Dear HBR: page. Send in your questions about workplace dilemmas by emailing Dan and Alison at dearhbr@hbr.org.

From Alison and Dan’s reading list for this episode:

HBR: What to Do When You Think Your Performance Review Is Wrong by Dick Grote — “Challenging a boss’s appraisal, even in a clear-cut case of bad data, is always a ticklish matter. Be cautious. It’s not easy

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How to Prepare for a Panel

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Compared with the nerve-wracking prospect of giving a lecture, presenting on a panel may seem to be a safer option. After all, you’re responding to targeted questions rather than monologuing, and you’re not the sole focus of audience attention.

But there are often hidden challenges when it comes to navigating panel discussions. Here are four strategies you can employ to ensure your turn in the spotlight goes smoothly.

First, connect with the moderator beforehand. It’s almost always possible for you to email or otherwise reach out to the moderator before the event. You’ll be able to prepare far more effectively if you understand how they intend to run the session. For instance, will they call on specific people to answer particular questions, or will it be a free-for-all where you’re expected to jump in? Do they have a list of questions already prepared, and if so, can they share

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The Most Productive Meetings Have Fewer Than 8 People

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There are many problems with the way most meetings are run. One of the most political is the invite list. Deciding who to include can be tough but too many managers default to including everyone. In an effort to not make anyone feel left out, they unknowingly decrease the quality of the meeting. Robert Sutton, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, looked at the research on group size and concluded that the most productive meetings contain only five to eight people. Why? There is a tipping point beyond which the quality of the conversation begins to erode.

When well-intended managers are too inclusive with their meeting invites:

Why Work Friendships Go Awry, and How to Prevent It

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Chances are that you spend between a third and a half of your waking hours each week at work. As a result, your relationships with people at work can become among the most important relationships in your life. Indeed, having good relationships with colleagues is one of the strongest predictors of people’s happiness at work.

That said, there are potential downsides to having good friends at work.

The most significant thing to watch out for relates to an ethical rule in psychotherapy called the dual relationship principle. This principle states that if someone serves as a therapist for a patient, then they cannot have any other relationship with that patient. They cannot be friends, coworkers, family, or romantic partners.

The reasoning behind the principle is that every relationship has goals associated with it, and when you have more than one relationship, those goals can conflict and cause

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5 Common Complaints About Meetings and What to Do About Them

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We all complain about meetings. We have too many. They’re a waste of time. Nothing gets done. These complaints often have merit, but they are so broad that they’re difficult to argue with and harder to address.

There are specific complaints that can be tackled, however. When I ask people in the workshops I lead what they most want help with, five issues consistently come up:

  • One or two people dominate the conversation and no one does anything about it.
  • My boss doesn’t lead meetings effectively.
  • Most of our meetings are just passing along information that could easily be sent in an email. We don’t talk about real issues.
  • No one is paying attention because they’re on their phones or laptops.
  • We keep having the same conversations because nothing gets done between meetings.

Fortunately, there are specific solutions for each of these problems. Based on my 25

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Ask Better Questions

Leslie K. John and Alison Wood Brooks, professors at Harvard Business School, say people in business can be more successful by asking more and better questions. They talk through what makes for a great question, whether you’re looking to get information or get someone to like you. They’re the coauthors of the article, “The Surprising Power of Questions,” in the May–June 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review.

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5 Ways to Project Confidence in Front of an Audience

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Employees, investors, and partners don’t just follow anyone — they follow leaders who have command of the business and command of the stage. Whether you’re presenting on an analyst call or speaking to your entire organization in a town hall meeting, you’re being judged on your confidence and competence, not just your content, and the way you appear and how you sound matters.

A study on CEOs giving IPO road-show presentations found that even hardened financial advisors judge a leader’s “competence and trustworthiness” within as little as 30-seconds. These snap judgments are so powerful, CEOs who rated the highest for their executive presence in the study enjoyed higher IPO valuations.

Here are five keys to look and sound like a leader people will want to follow whenever you’re presenting.

Dress 25% better than anyone else in the room. The evidence shows we size people up as soon

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How to Give the Same Talk to Different Audiences

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If you’re asked to speak at a conference or event, it’s likely because you’ve demonstrated expertise in your particular subject. To provide a great experience for attendees, you generally want to focus on the topic the organizers have requested – the “greatest hits” that you’re known for. But you’ll run into trouble if you give the same speech verbatim every time: your material will resonate much better with some audiences than others, and some may have heard your remarks before and get bored with the exact repetition.

So how can you strike the right balance and effectively deliver a similar talk to different audiences? As a professional speaker who delivers between 30-50 paid keynotes per year, here are three strategies I’ve discovered that can help you craft a successful talk that resonates with diverse attendees.

First, it can be helpful to envision the sections of your speech

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The Next Time You Want to Complain at Work, Do This Instead

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I looked at my watch. It was 3:20pm. I had been on the phone for over an hour, almost all of that time listening to Frank*, a senior manager at Jambo, a technology company, complain about his boss, Brandon. Jambo is a company I know well — I have many ongoing relationships there from when I used to work with their CEO — but they are not, currently, a client. In other words, I wasn’t soliciting complaints or asking for feedback.

“He’s so scattered,” Frank griped about Brandon, “He’ll waltz into a meeting — late, mind you — and share his most recent idea, which is often a complete distraction from our current plan. Totally ignoring our agenda. And then he’ll micromanage everything we do, reorganizing our work — though we’re still accountable for the stuff he’s ignoring. And that’s not the worst. The worst is he’s completely

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Tips for Reading the Room Before a Meeting or Presentation

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In every conversation at work, there’s the explicit discussion happening — the words being spoken out loud — and the tacit one. To be successful in most organizations, it’s important to understand the underlying conversations and reactions that people in the room are having. But if you aren’t picking up on those subtle cues, how can you learn to do so? What signals should you be looking for? And what can you do to influence the unspoken dynamics?

What the Experts Say
“Knowing how to read between the lines is a critical workplace skill,” says Annie McKee, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of How to Be Happy at Work. “You need to understand other people — what they want, what they don’t want, their fears, hopes, dreams, and motivations,” she says. “This builds trust. And trust is fundamental to getting things done.

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How to Run a Meeting Without Talking Too Much

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Have you ever left a meeting feeling that you dominated the whole thing — and not in a good way? You talked a lot, and in the end, you felt that nobody else had enough time to speak. This is a bad dynamic for several reasons. People don’t want to attend meetings that are just an opportunity for one person to deliver a monologue. And with one person taking up the airspace in a meeting, team members no longer feels that they’re working together.

What can you do to help ensure that you are not the only one talking in meetings? The obvious answer is to talk less, but that’s often easier said than done. And if other people are not used to speaking much in meetings, the absence of your voice could create a void that nobody fills. Here are a few things you can try.

Make notes and stick

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